Canada is Kentucky’s biggest trade partner — in fact, the commonwealth exported more than $7.6 billion in products and services to our neighbors in the north last year, topped by motor vehicles, auto parts and aerospace products; iron, steel and ferro-alloy; resin and synthetic rubber; and machinery.
Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear leads Kentucky Export Initiative trade missions to Canada, and this year he chose a local company to be a representative during the May 25-30 venture. That representative? Against the Grain Brewery & Smokehouse.
Why is this so important to a brewery that is already distributing products in dozens of U.S. states and in Europe? Well, for one, because Canadians love beer, in particular many of the barrel-aged products in which Against the Grain specializes, according to brewery co-owner Sam J. Cruz.
But it’s also not easy for a company that makes alcoholic beverages to get their products into Canada, he adds.
“It’s a monopoly,” Cruz says. “The government decides what products go in, so it pretty much eliminates competition. We were able to connect personally with the people who are making those decisions and can now eliminate that barrier or wall that acts to keep competition out. I would say that’s a priceless thing to make that connection.”
What it means is that now Against the Grain will be able create an export packet to present its products for approval by the appropriate governing body. A process that might have taken two years previously (if it worked at all) can now be completed in just a few months, or possibly even less.
Basically, Cruz and fellow Against the Grain owner Adam Watson toured Canadian cities Ottawa, Montreal and Toronto with a handful of other participating Kentucky businesses, building relationships that will help foster future trade agreements.
One beer Cruz identified as a potential export to Canada is called Coq de la Marsh, an easy-drinking saison-style beer, but the aforementioned signatures such as Kentucky Ryed Chiquen also are prime candidates. He notes, however, that the higher the alcohol content in Canada, the higher the price, so the saison is a perfect first step as a market entry product as it’s a mild 5.8 percent ABV.
“By giving them something in that middle range, they can keep the price down,” Cruz says. “But they also want all of the crazy big barrel-aged beers, and we can give them that.”
In addition, Cruz says the initial product offering shouldn’t take long: “Realistically, within five months, we will be in Montreal. And that’s a really conservative estimate.”
Cruz says the opportunity essentially came about as a result of Kentucky breweries establishing a relationship with government officials in Frankfort during the House Bill 168 battle earlier this year. He believes that in addition to being a small victory for bluegrass brewers, it will continue to provide inroads.
More than that, Against the Grain’s presence on the mission trip will have a trickle-down effect on the rest of the breweries in Louisville and around the state. Essentially, breweries can use Against the Grain’s presentation as a template to promote their own beers, and Cruz and his partners can make sure those packets get to the appropriate representatives.
Against the Grain is committed to helping other small Kentucky companies, Cruz says, and “part of that is putting Kentucky brewers on a national stage. We can take the information … and package it in a way so they can take it forward themselves. We can be advisors. In this case, we’ll feel really good about doing it in a foreign country.”
Of course, that is a big part of the mission.
“Canada is the largest destination for Kentucky-made products, but there are many additional opportunities for our small businesses to build partnerships with our neighbors to the north,” said Gov. Beshear said in a press release announcing the trip. “This trade mission will give Kentucky businesses the opportunity to have one-on-one meetings, form relationships to increase sales and explore international markets.”
Of course, it wasn’t all meetings and pressing flesh. There was beer consumed, and there were luncheons and other gatherings that involved simply meeting people to present what Kentucky business owners are really like — putting a face to the products, if you will.
“It might have been good for them to meet brewers,” Cruz says, chuckling, “maybe dressed down a little bit, with tattoos.”
Ultimately, it is an extension of what is going on not just in Louisville or around the commonwealth, but everywhere: Craft beer is a hot item.
“Quite frankly, internationally it’s booming,” Cruz says. “Everybody’s excited about good beer. I was really amazed by that and the interest our government officials who met with us had in craft beer. And the ambassador to Canada was really into talking about it.”